The Social Security program has done wonders to alleviate poverty among the elderly. A report recently released by the National Institute of Health looks at one of America’s growing populations, people aged 90 years or older—who they are, where they live, and their economic security. This age group is expanding to be a larger proportion of both the elderly population (age 65 and over) and the total U.S. population. While the 90-and-over population is overwhelmingly white (88.1%), the report shows that this group’s poverty rates are consistent with statistics for the total U.S. population—that women and people of color are more likely to be living in poverty.
Of the entire population of 1.9 million Americans aged 90 and over, the poverty rate was 14.5% in the years 2006-08. Among those living in poverty, over 80% were women, a disproportionately higher share of the 90+ population. Because women in this age group outnumber men 3 to 1, this makes them a very significant population. Like women in general, poverty rates for the “oldest old” were higher for elderly people of color: nearly a fourth of African-Americans 90 and over were living in poverty, with similar rates for Hispanics. The economic security and life quality of the “oldest old” population is significant because they are growing as a group; the report estimated that the number of Americans 90 and over will quadruple by the mid-century. Illinois is among the top 10 states that have the highest population of people 90+ at 78,800.
Because so many of those in the 90-and-over group are at an increased risk to be poor, an effective economic safety net must be in place to prevent or alleviate poverty among this fragile population. While some politicians and others have advocated cutting programs such as Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the federal deficit; these two vital programs are relied on by millions of older Americans, and especially those aged 90 and over. More than 98% of elderly 90 and over received Medicare coverage, and receipt of Social Security benefits is also nearly universal—for over 90% of the 90+ population Social Security made up almost half of their income. Major cuts to these programs would result in an increase to the already high number of those 90 and over living in poverty.
A recent report released by the U.S. Census Bureau on poverty in America suggests that poverty rates among the general population of elderly (those aged 65 and up) are rising as well. The report compares the “official” poverty rates and the new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) to determine who is considered poor or low-income. The SPM goes beyond the “official” poverty measurement (which is focused primarily on disposable income before taxes) and takes into account essential expenses such as variation in health care costs—a cost that is substantial for aging seniors. The report stated that in 2010 nearly 1 in 6 individuals 65 and older were living in poverty; this is almost double the rate measured by traditional poverty standards.
Many older or retirement-age Americans are worried about their economic situations in their later years. A report released by the AARP Public Policy Institute surveyed Americans 50 and over about their economic expectations for their old age. The majority of those surveyed lacked confidence in their economic situation as they continue to age. Nearly half of the participants expected their standard of living to decrease as they get older. The majority (57%) stated that they were not confident in their ability to finance a comfortable life through their retirement. As a greater proportion of our population reaches old age and the elderly live longer, there must be strong support of government programs and policies that address the needs of this growing population and do so much to alleviate poverty.